Chinese propagandists are using pseudo-scientific testing to undermine consumers' confidence in foreign infant formula.
On September 6-7, 2017, a Chinese Central TV (CCTV) "Consumer Advocate" program announced that 66 percent of foreign infant formula brands failed to meet Chinese standards, while all domestic brands passed the tests. News reports that Japanese and U.S. brands failed the tests were repackaged with the title "These Foreign Milk Powders Might Not Meet Standards; Does Your Family Buy Them?" and posted on dozens of Chinese web sites, such as the communist party's "red net".
A commentary on the nationalist Global Times web site followed up with, "Lesson from Chinese Milk Powder Counterattack," describing the testing results as the Chinese infant formula's "Normandy invasion," a sign that the industry has recovered from its 2008 melamine crisis "Dunkirk."
CCTV announced that 66% of infant formula ordered from overseas
did not comply with Chinese standards.
The testing followed a March 15, 2016 "consumer day" CCTV broadcast aimed at undermining "blind confidence" in imported milk powder--CCTV reporters had found that 80% of young parents interviewed preferred foreign brands of infant formula over domestic brands. CCTV's initial round of testing of foreign infant formula purchased through Chinese e-commerce web sites found that 40 percent of foreign milk powder did not meet Chinese standards for iron, iodine, selenium, and manganese, and 15 percent did not meet standards for vitamin content. CCTV said the March 15 test results generated a lot of discussion, but CCTV acknowledged that consumers still were not convinced. Consumers wondered whether there is a problem with China's standards and how foreign and domestic brands really compare.
CCTV claims they addressed these questions by the new round of testing over the last six months. They selected six brands of Dutch, German, American, and Japanese infant formulas purchased through e-commerce sites and three Chinese brands purchased at a supermarket in Beijing. The products were tested by Chinese government labs for 52 different items, including energy, protein, and fat, vitamins, minerals, aflatoxin, melamine, and presence of microorganisms. The three Chinese brands, Dutch and German brands complied with Chinese standards on all 52 items, but the two Japanese and the two American brands were each slightly outside the acceptable ranges on 2 or 3 of the 52 items. The Japanese brands were low in vitamin K and iodine, and the American brands had iron content that exceeded the Chinese standard.
CCTV portrays its testing as scientific, with discussion of samples and photos of white lab coats, test tubes and blurry photos of test reports and standards. However, the testing is not at all scientific. CCTV admits they cherry-picked the Chinese brands--they intentionally chose three (Wandashan, Feihe, and Sanyuan) that were not implicated in the 2008 melamine adulteration scandal. They did not test products of big companies like Yili, Mengniu, and Bright, so the results do not reflect all Chinese infant formula brands. There are also conflicts of interest. The testing was overseen by the Chinese dairy association and the alliance of state farm dairy companies. CCTV described these as "third party organizations," yet both organizations promote Chinese dairy companies. Each of the three Chinese companies tested is part of the State Farm system, and The Sixth Tone pointed out that Feihe is one of the companies CCTV agreed to promote as part of a "National Brand Plan."
Moreover, the foreign products tested were produced to meet standards of other countries. The foreign infant formula samples were bought through e-commerce sites that procure infant formula in foreign countries and deliver them to Chinese customers. Thus, the foreign products were not manufactured to comply with Chinese standards, but the Chinese products were manufactured for the Chinese market.
CCTV insisted that China needs to have its own standards to fit its own conditions. For example, a professor explained that China needs a higher level of iodine than Japan because Japanese people get sufficient iodine from seafood. CCTV displayed grotesque images of children with iodine deficiencies.
Sixth Tone reported that most Chinese citizens remained skeptical of the CCTV testing, citing one online sarcastic comment thanking CCTV for "recommending these six foreign brands." New York-based Duowei News asserted that "this type of patriotic propaganda will fail to achieve the communist government's hopes and will become a source of ridicule."